#MeToo Movement: Women of Faith Break Their Silence

Female leaders of diverse faith traditions, including former Willow Creek staff member Vonda Dyer, reveal how they kept their faith after being violated by clergymen.

By Josh Shepherd Published on September 21, 2018

Whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim, faith communities in recent months have been rocked by sexual abuse scandals. Notable offenders include evangelical pastor Bill Hybels, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and an orthodox Jewish rabbi from Baltimore.

The scope and severity of allegations against faith leaders, usually men, make this one of the year’s biggest stories. It follows on the heels of other “silence breakers,” named by TIME Magazine as Person of the Year in December 2017.

Victims of abuse who have spoken out, most often female, have coalesced into the #MeToo Movement. After Harvey Weinstein’s fall from power in Hollywood, leaders both left and right have been caught up in serious allegations from multiple sources.

This season of exposed misdeeds continues. Related hashtags include #ChurchToo, identifying the context of abuse, and #TimesUp to express how offenders must face a reckoning.

Justice, Due Process and Hearing Both Sides

Many have expressed concerns about a “Twitter mob” becoming judge and jury of the accused. Numerous charges against various leaders are being investigated and litigated. Often, the evidence has yet to be weighed on the scales of justice in appropriate state and federal courts.

On Tuesday, evangelical Christian leader Russell Moore stated cautions regarding the accusations made against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Notably, Moore led a faith leaders coalition in support of Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Some have minimized charges against the long-respected jurist as a delay tactic to derail the process.

“We need to hear from both of the parties involved,” said Moore. “Frankly, I’m dealing almost every day both with young women who have been assaulted and abused. I don’t want them to hear from whatever political debates going on: Don’t come forward. Don’t tell your story.

Moore pressed on. “And I’m often dealing with people in the criminal justice system who’ve been wrongfully accused of doing things they haven’t done,” he added. “I don’t want us to simply rush to judgment immediately, simply on the basis of where our political convictions lie.”

Such balanced voices are rare in a politically polarized election season. Indeed, few have taken time to listen and consider the stories of women. This past week, four victims of sexual abuse shared their stories in a unique public forum.

When Sacred Spaces Become Unsafe

Last Friday in Columbus, Ohio, the Religion News Association (RNA) hosted a panel on “#MeToo in Sacred Spaces” during its annual conference. The RNA is a global community of journalists who strive to report on religion with balance, accuracy, and insight.

Vonda Dyer

Vonda Dyer

Moderated by Dina Zingard of CBS’ 60 Minutes, four female leaders told numerous agonizing stories. Some reporters were moved to tears by their courageous, deeply emotional accounts.

They reflected diverse faith traditions. Vonda Dyer told firsthand of abuses she faced at Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. Dr. Keren McGinity of Hebrew College spoke of incidents she had seen in Jewish faith circles.

Sameera Qureshi of HEART Women and Girls in the D.C. area unveiled troubling aspects of dominant Muslim culture. And Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of the United Methodist Church shared concerns faced by denominations and historically black churches.

“People inherently trust spiritual leaders because they introduce them to Jesus or to their faith,” said Dyer. “Usually God uses that to change peoples’ lives. When that trust is violated, it leads people to question everything about themselves and their experience. It even causes people to question the validity of their faith.”

The women spoke openly, at times in detail, of sexual abuse during the hour-long panel. (Viewer discretion is advised.) During Q&A, they also examined what safeguards faith communities should consider.

Abuse of Power, Depraved Offenses

Vonda Dyer was among the first of now ten female accusers to come forward against Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek. She served at the megachurch for 14 years.

She and other women revealed their stories in the Chicago Tribune this past March. “I am six months into facing a #MeToo storm of seismic proportions,” Dyer began.

“When trust is violated, it leads people to question everything about themselves and their experience. It even causes people to question the validity of their faith.” — Vonda Dyer

“Would I have the courage to stand up to this man,” asked Dyer, her voice breaking. “And reveal the abusive patterns that maligned the very gospel he preached to thousands for decades? Would I risk my reputation and my standing in the global church to make it stop?”

Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi

Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi

Such misdeeds are not unique to independent megachurches, panelists noted. Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi oversees several Pittsburgh-area congregations in the United Methodist Church. “Even though I come from a denomination that has a structure or process for everything,” she said. “—People are still sexually harassed. [Don’t think] it’s not going to happen because we have a process.”

She continued on a theme Dyer brought forward. Senior pastors are often unquestioned and without peer, they stated. “In the black church, pastors are put on a pedestal,” said Moore-Koikoi. “Everything they do is right. If you question them, then you’re questioning God. It allows people to go unchecked with behavior we all know in our guts is wrong.”

Jewish scholar Dr. Keren McGinity pointed to what she believes is the heart of the issue. “Society defines masculinity along lines that lift men up according to how big and strong and how many sexual conquests they have,” she said.

“It replicates this idea that men have some inalienable right to touch women at their whim,” McGinity continued. “We need [diverse] voices and ideas about what it means to be a man, to be masculine — and to be a woman.”

Time’s Up for Abusers in Faith Communities

Rather than doubting their faith, the women said their beliefs drove them to speak out on behalf of victims.

“It gave me courage to step forward,” said Dyer. “[I was] reminded by the story of Esther, how she went against a very powerful and destructive man. God made a pathway for her.”

Sameera Qureshi, a director at HEART Women and Girls, asserted that violence results when beliefs are misapplied. “Faith is not the problem,” she said. “Misinterpretation and misuse of religion are the problems. Female leaders are reteaching a lot of men about justice, standing up against oppression, and equality of women’s rights within Islam.”

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McGinity pinpointed the concerns at hand. “The problem is the idea that one can use one’s power and influence to objectify and assault someone else, male or female,” she said.

Greater accountability to other congregation leaders has become a necessity, the women leaders stated. Methodist Church founder John Wesley’s 21 questions were noted as a tool for greater transparency in such private discussions. They contend true faith points the way to integrity.

“My faith has grown stronger,” concluded Dyer. “I have a fierce fire in my belly to see this eradicated — inside and outside of the church.”

 

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  • *rollseyes* What happened to the SBLC? People like Patricia Ford used to be dismissed with contempt because of a few basic facts — event occurred in the distant past (35 years ago, in high school); accuser cannot remember dates or times of the supposed attack; the attack was not brought up when Kavanaugh was appointed to the federal bench; the attack was PURPOSEFULLY withheld by Diane Feinstein (D-CA) for weeks, and she still hasn’t released the unredacted letter to the Senate committee responsible; and Ford making all kinds of demands that are obviously obstructing and not in good faith — FBI investigation (on an event 35 years old?), demanding that Kavanaugh not be able to face his accuser, etc.

    Truth does not need to be balanced with lies. This is a transparent attempt to delay a confirmation vote for the political gain of the Democrat party.

    • SophieA

      And incidents such as this obvious political attack to derail an eminently qualified nominee to SCOTUS diminishes and disgraces the true crimes that have been perpetrated on women by men of power. Doesn’t anyone read Aesop’s Fables anymore? Cry “wolf” too many times makes deaf the ears of those who can save you. I guess not.

  • rick dean

    What does Judge Brett Kavanaugh have to do with women of faith breaking their silence? Is the woman leveling the (false) accusations against him a woman of faith? If not, then why even mention Kavanaugh. Unless of course that was the whole purpose of this article.

    Also, how do you go from “And I’m often dealing with people in the criminal justice system
    who’ve been wrongfully accused of doing things they haven’t done,” to “This past week, four victims of sexual abuse shared their stories in a unique public forum” in the same segment?

    Prior to quoting Russell Moore you write, “Notably, Moore led a faith leaders coalition in support of Kavanaugh’s nomination:.
    Notably? In other words, Of course he’s going to support him. He has skin in the game. Why not quote one, or many of the people that have known Judge Kavanaugh for decades?

    Another of your statements, “Some have minimized charges against the long-respected jurist”. Minimized charges? How about flat out denied the charges!

    The bias in this article may be veiled, but it’s there.

    • Lisa

      Reread the beginning of the article. He’s encouraging women with legitimate claims to come forward and not to rush to judgment on the accused.

      • rick dean

        It’s the weakness of the “not rush to judgment” part, and the omission of key facts/truth re: Judge Kavanaugh that bothers me.

        It’s also about key words/innuendos in the article. Some of which I noted in my first post.

        Either leave the segment about Judge Kavanaugh out, or include more information/facts/truth and it’s a good article.

  • Irene Neuner

    I just received a book by Bill Hybels on Prayer and after reading his chapter on injustice I couldn’t read anymore. Liberal in sheeps clothing. Not surprised he is being accused of sexual misconduct. This will be the first book I return to amazon. Just to make a point.

    Can anyone recommend a book to help establish a deeper prayer life?

    • Hebrewhelena

      Dr. Jack Hayford has some really good ones.

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